Spend any time slogging away at a desk inside a newsroom and you'll quickly find out the role many readers expect you to play. Which will often be something totally at odds with what you're really supposed to do.
What many readers, not to mention advertisers, expect is for you to act as little more than a branch of the local Rotary Club. You're one of us, or against us. And woe to the scribe who doesn't get with the program.
This week's ink-stained wretch who dared to be different is Paul Gattis, the University of Alabama beat writer for the Huntsville Times. Gattis has the so-called honor of voting in the Associated Press Top 25 college football poll.
That's supposed to be a pretty cool thing for a sportswriter. Except when it's not.
You see, Gattis dared to put Oklahoma and Southern Cal as his top picks, and only then picked Auburn, incurring the wrath of the 'Bama Bubba Nation and likely dooming Auburn's hopes of playing for the national championship.
Never mind that all three teams were undefeated and that he had ranked the top two schools in the same position all year. Gattis was nothing if not consistent, which wasn't good enough for the hundreds of e-mailers who said he had a bias against Auburn because he covered Alabama and labeled him many variations of a traitor, dumb-ass and gutless wonder.
And those were the ones who said nice things about him.
Gattis was prompted to write a column in which he defended himself. Alternately informed and downright combative, the column http://www.al.com/search/index.ssf?/base/sports/1102328253177771.xml?huntsvilletimes?ssec was as courageous and it was cranky.
Alas, Melinda Gorham didn't see it that way. The Huntsville Times editor, under obvious pressure from her publisher and advertisers, cut loose from her spine and issued a front-page apology in which she called Gattis's column "mean-spirited and callow."
Even though signed columns are meant to reflect a writer's sensibilities and style, there are certain attributes that should never be circumvented: civility, tolerance of counter-opinions, and a tone that coaxes a reader to ponder the concept more than the columnist.
We didn't do that in Monday's column. I deeply regret it.
Way to support the staff, Mel.
Look, there's a reason most reporters don't count editors among their drinking buddies. Becoming a manager and actually having to make a decision changes someone, especially when they have to answer to publishers, who themselves are catch flak from everyone from their corporate overlords to their wife's Mah Jong partners.
So, rather than stand up and defend a reporter who's only doing his job, the only instinct is to duck and cover. I've encountered editors like Gorham before during my newsroom stints. It's easier to say "I'm sorry" and pander in hopes a shrill minority will shut up than to take a stand and tell them to shut up.
At least Gattis had the guts to do that.
As for Gorham, I'm sure she'll get an extra slice of milquetoast at the next Rotary Club meeting.